The decade of the 2010s has featured many memorable and historic moments in sports, from multi-decade championship droughts erased to the emergence of dynasties. There were controversial lows and even comebacks to prominence (e.g. Tiger Woods winning the 2019 Masters), and it has all been documented here at Awful Announcing.
I’ll revisit the best sports moments of the 2010’s through the lens of television ratings, the measurements that indicates the interest level and popularity for an event. The following countdown list of the decade’s ratings highlights is based on the impact those events and its numbers (tabulated by Nielsen Media Research) had on the scope of television, media and the culture at-large.
10. O.J. Revisited
Revivals were a popular trend on television in the 2010s to attempt offsetting the exponentially increasing fragmentation of audiences. Classic 90’s sitcoms Roseanne and Will & Grace each initially returned to TV with massive audiences. Another ’90s phenomenon also made a comeback, of sorts: the O.J. Simpson murder trial. Two major projects that chronicled the case that accused the former Heisman Trophy-winning running back of double murder received prominent notice in 2016. Ryan Murphy’s dramatized account entitled The People vs. O.J. Simpson that kicked off FX’s American Crime Story anthology series. Approximately 7 million viewers a week caught each episode of its limited run, which would ultimately earn many accolades at the various award shows, including the Emmy Awards.
The other Simpson project was ESPN’s Academy Award-winning 7.5-hour documentary O.J.: Made in America by filmmaker Ezra Edelman, which examined the case within the context of race and class in the country. It would air across five nights in mid-June; its first night (June 11, 2016) had aired on ABC and with 3.4 million viewers, it would draw the second largest 30 for 30 telecast to-date (only You Don’t Know Bo on ESPN from Dec. 2012 drew more). Then, over 13 million tuned in to Simpson’s parole hearing from Nevada in July 2017, after a nine-year stint in prison for armed robbery. That event aired across several networks, including ESPN.
9. Triple Crown Victory Returns to The Belmont
American Pharoah cemented its legendary status by ending thoroughbred racing’s 37-year drought of a Triple Crown champion – that is, winning the Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes, and Belmont Stakes within a five-week span. In between Triple Crown victories of Affirmed in 1978 and American Pharoah in 2015, thirteen different horses within that span had won the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness Stakes, but failed to win the Belmont. As the years wore on, the anticipation increasingly built for every Belmont Stakes telecast whenever a horse attmpted to accomplish the Triple Crown feat. Pharoah was able to surpass all his competitors on the race track, but not in the ratings books; the race telecast on NBC of his historic win drew an average of 18.6 million viewers, but that fell short of California Chrome’s near-miss of one year earlier (2014) that attracted more than 20 million (also, on NBC). Still, 2014 and 2015 were, respectively, the second-largest and third-largest Belmont Stakes telecasts on record (dating back to 1988). The bloom was off the figurative rose by 2018 when just 12.7 million tuned in to the horse named Justify achieving the Triple Crown championship in Elmont, N.Y.
8. Floyd Mayweather: The King of Pay-Per-View
Boxing had a modest comeback to the sports mainstream with the advent of Premier Boxing Champions on network television starting in 2015. It was during that year that boxing’s biggest marquee bout was supposed to place an even more substantial mark for the sport in the American public consciousness: Floyd Mayweather versus Manny Pacquiao. Discussions for the highly-anticipated meeting had taken place for several years, but finally, the fight came to fruition in ’15 with two premium cable networks, HBO and Showtime, joining forces to produce it for pay-per-view.
Mayweather-Pacquiao set the all-time record for PPV buys with 4.6 million, but the event was beset with several problems like connectivity issues and cable outages, while the fight itself was largely regarded as lackluster. Nonetheless, that didn’t dampen interest in Mayweather himself as just two years later, in August 2017, he would prove his PPV might once again when 4.3 million customers purchased his boxing battle against UFC superstar Conor McGregor. To date, Mayweather has been part of the top four pay-per-view events of all time, including his bouts with Oscar de la Hoya in 2007 (2.48 million buys) and Canelo Alvarez in 2013 (2.2 million).
7. Hockey Reaches Milestones
There were plenty of Olympic highlights in the 2010’s and several of those — mostly at the 2012 London Summer Games — drew near or above 30 million viewers on the networks of NBC. The event at most note here, though, posted an average of 27.6 million viewers and it took place on the final day of the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, Canada: the Gold Medal final of the men’s hockey tournament between Canada and the United States. It was the game that Sidney Crosby further solidified his superstar career, on top of his 2009 Stanley Cup championship with the Pittsburgh Penguins (he’d go on to win two more titles in 2016 and 2017), by scoring the gold medal-winning goal for his home country of Canada in overtime. The 2010 Canada-U.S. match was the most-watched hockey game of any kind on U.S. television since the 1980 U.S.-Russia Olympic semifinal (aka “Miracle on Ice”). Four months later in 2010, the National Hockey League would have its own ratings boon, thanks to the Chicago Blackhawks winning its first Stanley Cup since 1961. The deciding Game 6 of that championship series against the Philadelphia Flyers delivered 8.28 million viewers, the then-best viewer figure for an NHL game on record (since 1994). That mark would be surpassed just one year later (2011) when the Boston Bruins prevailed over the Vancouver Canucks in Game 7 (8.54 million).
However, it wasn’t all smooth sailing for the sport of hockey in the 2010s. 2012 saw the NHL experience its third owners’ lockout within a 19-year span, which resulted in a condensed 2013 regular season. Then, in 2017, the league announced that due to financially reasons, it would not again halt its season for a several-week period to send any player under contract to the Winter Olympics. Therefore, the 2018 PyeongChang Games in South Korea did not consist of NHL players for the first time since 1994. But the 2012 lockout didn’t stymie viewership; the Stanley Cup Finals in 2013 (5.8 million) and 2015 (5.6 million) — both won by the Chicago Blackhawks — were the two most-watched SCFs on record, based on average viewership across all its series games (since 2000). In addition, as the decade came to a close, the NHL would reach record viewing levels once more as the St. Louis Blues won their first Stanley Cup, drawing a total of almost 9 million for Game 7 in June 2019 on NBC’s linear and streaming platforms.
6. Americans En Masse Start Flocking to World Cup Soccer
The sport of soccer still has a long way to go to enter the mainstream of American sports. But in 2014, an increasing amount of casual sports fans took notice of the U.S. team at the World Cup that was hosted by Brazil. It was the final World Cup broadcast on ESPN and Univision. Both networks’ coverage were widely praised for their depiction of the large breadth, pageantry, and high drama of the world-renowned event. Matches involving the U.S. men’s team drew 15.9 million (vs. Ghana), 24.8 million (vs. Portugal), 14.2 million (vs. Germany), and 21.6 million viewers (vs. Belgium), respectively. With the exception of the match versus Portugal (which was on a Sunday), those impressive viewership numbers occurred for weekday afternoon matches.
Interest wasn’t exclusive to U.S. contests; for example, Netherlands vs. Mexico in the Round of 16 drew 17 million, and the Germany-Argentina final — airing on ABC and Univision — attracted a combined audience of 26.5 million. In the following year of 2015, the U.S. women’s soccer team was able to avenge their 2011 loss to Japan and emerge victorious for their third World Cup title overall in front of an extraordinary 26.7 million viewers in prime time on Fox and Telemundo, the first official FIFA tournament of the new agreement. Four years later, in July 2019, almost 17 million watched the U.S. women successfully defend its World Cup title by defeating the Netherlands — an impressive figure for a match that began airing in the morning in the Eastern time zone.
5. Warm Welcome (Mostly) for the College Football Playoff
A playoff system had long been desired by college football fans, after many years of frustration with either subjective year-end polls or computers determining which teams should play for the National Championship. But a Final Four football system, determined by a committee, finally arrived for the 2014 season. The College Football Playoff semifinals on New Year’s Day in 2015 were a massive ratings success, each drawing over 28 million viewers, becoming the two most-watched cable telecasts of all-time at the time, a record that would last just eleven days, thanks to the 33.4 million (still, the best viewer figure to-date) who watched the Oregon-Ohio State national championship on ESPN. But the following season, the powers that be in college football were greatly humbled as the semifinal games took a huge tumble (down approximately 30 percent) by being scheduled on New Year’s Eve. The playoffs have achieved significantly better numbers since that Dec. 31, 2015 debacle and have become the new mainstay in sports each and every January.
4. Fans Embrace Watching Every College Basketball Game During March Madness
It was a vastly different world for the state of March Madness on television as it entered the 2010s. While the men’s college basketball tournament has long been immensely popular, CBS was hemorrhaging money so much so, it even considered lending its coverage to ESPN. In 2011, a new partnership was born: CBS and Turner Sports would be in a joint venture, with Turner picking up most of the financial slack. In the 2000s, only DirecTV customers subscribing to a special package had access to every March Madness game on television. But for fans and viewers from 2011, each and every game aired on TV, across CBS, TBS, TNT, and truTV. No longer would they be limited to their regional game according to their local market, nor split screens nor frequent cut-aways to other action. The revamped telecast format proved massively successful. Viewership increased yearly with the 2015 tournament as its biggest of the decade, averaging 11.3 million viewers — the best figure for March Madness since 1993. Kentucky vied to be the first undefeated men’s college basketball team to win it all since 1976 but fell to Wisconsin at the Final Four; that game drew almost 23 million viewers, the largest Final Four audience since 1996. Over 28 million then witnessed that same Wisconsin squad lose to Duke in the final, marking the most-watched national championship since 1997.
3. No Worries… NFL Still Reigns Supreme
The National Football League has dominated the American sports landscape for four decades and for the 2010s, the sport grew to larger heights. Increased fan participation in season-long and daily fantasy football as well as the legalization of sports gambling have been major influences. For most of the decade, its premier event, the Super Bowl drew well over 100 million viewers, — a feat that had never been accomplished prior to Feb. 2010 — peaking at 114 million in 2015 for the New England Patriots vs. Seattle Seahawks in Super Bowl XLIX. In the world of television, football became an even more dominant presence opposite the dwindling live audience amounts for scripted fare on competing networks. The arrival of Thursday Night Football on the broadcast networks, previously a limited package and solely on cable’s NFL Network, immediately became a force in prime time (routinely ranking in the weekly Top 5 telecasts every fall) despite worries of the league’s over-saturation and potentially subpar game play. Football Sundays were enhanced in the 2010s with RedZone, the channel (both versions from cable providers and DirecTV) that offers whip-around coverage with cut-ins to live action of all games.
But the sport’s biggest ratings story came in 2016 and 2017. Vast amounts of news items (this site included among them) reported and attempted to analyze the decline of NFL viewership during those years. Significant factors included the 2016 U.S. presidential election and the rise of cable news, the controversies involving Ray Rice and Colin Kapernick (among others), the concerns about head trauma and concussions, devastating weather, and widespread mediocre game play. And even the NFL was affected by primarily young adults’ mass exodus from linear TV towards over-the-top (streaming) content; the sport’s demographics would skew slightly older in each passing year. While many observers assumed the roles as ratings Chicken Littles, having deemed this TV data as pending doom and gloom, the NFL’s regular season experienced year-to-year declines of 8 percent (from 2015 to 2016) and 9 percent (from 2016 to 2017), respectively. Since then, ratings have rebounded: up 6 percent in 2018 and another slight uptick in 2019. All in all, it’s just business as usual for the immensely popular sport.
2. The Decade of LeBron
LeBron James was already a bonafide superstar by 2010. He had just earned his second Most Valuable Player award at the time, but had not yet won an NBA championship for the Cleveland Cavaliers. On July 8, 2010, his career took a dramatic turn in front of a national audience on ESPN — a reported peak of 13.1 million watchers — with The Decision, where he famously announced he’d “take [his] talents to South Beach” and leave his hometown Cavaliers to join the Miami Heat with his friend Dwyane Wade and other Miami transplant Chris Bosh. As a member of the Heat from 2010-14, James was vilified by most of the nation’s sports fans but he thrived nonetheless, finally winning not one but two NBA titles along with two more MVP awards. Then, in the summer of 2014, James was at the center of the NBA offseason once again stating, in a famous Sports Illustrated article by Lee Jenkins, his intent to return to Cleveland and the Cavaliers.
But as he aimed to bring his home town of Cleveland a professional sports championship (its first in five decades), another NBA team out west was quickly emerging as a threat: the Golden State Warriors. That franchise made the bold move to oust Mark Jackson as coach for Steve Kerr in 2014, and it paid immediate dividends. The Warriors, with Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green, and a slew of quality bench players, began a new dynasty, and as it would soon become clear, established a Finals rivalry with LeBron James, point guard Kyrie Irving, center/power forward Kevin Love, and the Cleveland Cavaliers, the dominant team in the East. It was the Warriors vs. the Cavaliers in the Finals from 2015 to 2018. Their middle two matchups were most notable: in 2016, the Cavs won its first NBA title in franchise history; the dramatic Game 7 drew a massive 31 million viewers (and a peak of 44.5 million by game’s end) — the most-watched NBA game telecast since 1998 Finals Game 6; and, in 2017, although its Finals lasted just five games (Warriors easily winning four games to one), its series viewer average of 20.4 million was the best since Chicago Bulls-Utah Jazz (Michael Jordan’s last Finals) in 1998. LeBron James appeared in an unprecedented eight consecutive NBA Finals, being victorious in three of them. He drove monster ratings for the sport, which is something he’ll likely continue doing in the 2020’s for his Los Angeles Lakers whose last title was won three weeks prior to LeBron’s infamous Decision.
1. Cubs Win
If there’s only one team to best represent the 2010s in sports television history, the Chicago Cubs are certainly qualified to fit the bill. Long renown as the “lovable losers”, the Cubs went through five consecutive losing seasons to start the decade. Former Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein, who had helmed the Boston team that finally broke The Curse of the Bambino in 2004 to win their first World Series in 86 years, joined the Cubs in 2011 as club president to attempt to accomplish the even more improbable: to breakthrough past the Curse of the Billy Goat (that is, the Cubs not winning a league pennant since 1945) as well as capturing the franchise’s first world championship since 1908. Through their lean years, the Cubs would develop such highly regarded homegrown talent in Kris Bryant and Javier Baez alongside key acquisitions like Anthony Rizzo, Addison Russell, Jon Lester, Ben Zobrist, and David Ross. 2015 was the first year this young talented squad had a taste of the postseason, with manager Joe Maddon, that concluded in getting swept by the New York Mets in the NLCS. As exhibited in their run during the 2003 playoffs, the Cubs’ presence in the postseason fueled more interest and viewership to MLB in October.
The expectations coming into 2016 were greater than ever for this team, and grew even more into an October that had followed a successful 103-win regular season. To no surprise, more and more fans became glued to watching their journey throughout that postseason. The Cubs finally reached a World Series, but to make it to the figurative promised land, they’d battle another team that had eyes on erasing a decades-long championship drought: the Cleveland Indians. The protracted Cubs-Indians series went the full distance, culminating in one of the classic baseball games of all time: Game 7, full of high drama that went past midnight Eastern time and into the 10th inning. The game that earned the Cubs its first world title in 108 years attracted an average audience of a whopping 41 million viewers on Fox’s platforms, peaking at near 50 million by game’s end. To-date, it’s the most-watched non-NFL/non-Olympic sports telecast on television since Game 7 of the 1991 World Series.